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Tough Conversations

Collaboration From Within a Mental Bubble

Apr 29, 2020 – by Dean

There has always been something different about design for me. I jumped into this world as a way of reaching out with my creative self, a part of me that I place so much value in. Once I started off at Firebelly I had the opportunity to grow that creativity amongst a brilliant and supportive team. That creative part of me learned how to share and communicate and stay present with every moment— but… it was hard.

During one of my first presentations at Firebelly— I froze solid. For seemingly minutes I stumbled, stuttered and said nothing— on camera— as I attempted to squeeze every perfectly considered word out of my mouth. I lost track and couldn’t speak. And then slides over a post-it from my coworker Alibaster, and it let me rebound. YOU GOT THIS.” And I did. That simple encouragement changed my perspective in the short term, but caused a new awareness in the long term— We are in this together.

Handwritten "You Got This" Post-It note
This is an actual spark of trust and encouragement from one of my coworkers, and it changed a lot.

Along with my creative self another part of me struggles with social anxiety. That part keeps me mostly quiet. It’s easier for me to observe and filter thoughts rather than saying them. That anxiety though has also taught me to be a damn good listener. When I feel like I can’t find words or am searching for the perfect phrase I look to others, and sort of teach myself to speak again.

Finding the words is hard for everyone though: conversations can be difficult and discussing a finished piece of your hard work— at length— can leave you vulnerable as hell. At Firebelly we’ve learned that difficult conversations guide beautiful and insightful work. This team has taught me how finding the words from clients and for clients leads to more relevant outcomes, while encouraging each other in the process.

Just Asking

Again with this whole anxiety’ thing, I spend a lot of time reflecting and observing my own thoughts. Not understanding what a person means at the outset of an explanation is immediately interpreted as a flaw in this wild west of my mind. In the past I hid that but, not anymore. Leaning into the I don’t know”’s and I think missed something”’s has led me to the right questions to do the work.

Sometimes asking the right question though isn’t enough. Each person has a unique experience with the world— and really, truly understanding that can be quite hard. People speak different lingo; we form ideas in different ways. Your bold” and mine are gonna be two different things. Stepping into another person’s experience means stepping outside of my own mental bubble and dropping any assumptions of their world.

At times, I don’t have the capacity to understand another person’s needs. What happens when I don’t know what I don’t know!? During those times it is important to form a space that nurtures understanding and provides the capacity to learn from each other. This also takes conversations. Consideration can be done by placing yourself inside of another’s experience, but it cannot be done without a ton of assumptions. Active empathy— true compassionate understanding— that can only come from uniting with an open heart and mind to ask the what, how, and why, while being unafraid to hear we got it wrong.

“Active empathy— true compassionate understanding— that can only come from uniting with an open heart and mind to ask the what, how, and why, while being unafraid to hear we got it wrong.”

The Bike Rack board from one of our workshops

Our team has considered ways to promote an open dialogue and encourage ideas regardless of your thought process or social comfort. We show that it’s okay to form disagreements and encourage productive tension. A few favorites:

  • Ground Rules: Establish common understanding & goals
  • Squiggle Birds: Breaking the ice with play while building off of one another’s loose thoughts and ideas.
  • Step up & Step back: to encourage unified participation by pushing those who don’t speak to step up, and creating awareness for the louder voices to step back and make space.
  • The Bike Rack: to forgive that wandering mind by giving it space to roam. For those whose minds wander so beautifully they can’t keep up with the moment.

Creativity and Collaboration

For me (and many others) design gets personal. In addition to asking, making requires more than just creativity; it’s communicative, occasionally intuitive, it expresses stories and pushes comfort levels at times. And to do it right it takes a whole lot of conversations.

“Out beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

— Rumi

These moments require an intervention, where you must create or find your network that can see the gritty wrongs” of your creations and also find the potential. When you find those people, will yourself to get gritty, show the muddy, glue-stuck, play-doh covered you that you feel the need to hide. Trust in yourself and let gracious people around you to help brush off the extra bit of mud, and send a more polished play-doh masterpiece out into the world — because that is in you too.

The people at Firebelly, this creative network, bond more and more through tough conversations. Knowing that between the balance of work and play, fear sneaks in and prevents us from bringing all of ourselves. With the inspiration of the blessed Brené Brown and the encouragement from Nermin, we rumble” about our thoughts and feelings when they’re difficult. We rumble” to improve the type of feedback we give and take and understand each other’s creative needs. We meet to acknowledge our mental blocks and support the work we do but also, we meet to support each other. 

Our Current State of Captivity

Abandoned Chicago beach flag post in late march

Tough conversations happen more often these days. A global pandemic— un-shockingly— brings a few added pounds of stress to the table. Physical distance manifests a whole new social isolation. With all the new stress in our lives, honest conversations with a trusting team has allowed us a more wholesome life and workspace but again… it’s hard. We are physically apart and mentally distant. How do you have tough conversations? We have been so honest with each other for where we are at, while also pushing each other forward. Yes these are trying times, but these are also times that we have banded together in unique and inspiring ways. When there isn’t a physical space for ideas to form, we’ve been forming it digitally and emotionally by speaking early, frankly and often. It takes more effort, but we will be here trying, and that little post-it will always be on my desk helping me rally through.

Even as I write this, I’m learning. I’m sharing, asking questions, understanding that rough” thoughts still contain a world of ideas and considerations. I’m learning how to dig deeper and ask to understand more, and ever so slowly I’m accepting that I won’t always understand. But I know it’s good to talk about that too.